Rails Underground

It’s weird now. I think once you’ve been involved in putting on a conference, or maybe any event, you start to feel a bit more precious about your ideas than you did when you were just an attendee.


So Rails Underground officially opened its doors for registration, and while I think the name is great, I’m less than excited:

  • Very Early Bird Tickets: £160 - strictly first come, first served, and for a limited time only!
  • Early Bird Tickets: £180 - book before 25th June. 140 tickets will be made avaiable.
  • Standard Tickets: £240.

From what I’ve heard, in order to cover the venue, speaker expenses, equipment, swag and meals, the conference is going to need to raise around £23,000 by selling around 150 tickets. The organiser has said that he doesn’t plan to make a profit, and I’ve no reason to doubt that at all. But really - that much?

Culture Clash

Ruby Manor looked great, I wanted to go for an intentionally different style, so not to clash.

I don’t think Murray would disagree with this, so let me say now: the Ruby Manor model is there for the taking. We have no desire to establish a monopoly on conferences that don’t cost any more than they need to. If someone else was to organise an event based on the ideas (either the implementation, or just the principles) behind Ruby Manor, we would be delighted. And, I think, so would a bunch of other people.

The point

The point of Ruby Manor wasn’t to do something cheaply. It wasn’t because we don’t see the value in conferences. It definitely wasn’t because we are tight with our cash!

The point was that we didn’t understand why conferences needed to be as expensive or opaque as they were.

We didn’t see the point in the usual tricks of giving us bags and t-shirts that we were probably never going to use, or “early bird” ticket discounts. We particularly didn’t enjoy the pot-luck of choosing sessions based only on the speaker’s abstract, only to find out that either they’d changed their mind, or that it turns out they weren’t going to cover the stuff we thought was interesting.

We didn’t see the value in providing flaky wifi when we saw how much it was going to cost the attendees; I can live without the internet for a day. We looked at confreaks to do the video, but again, the value wasn’t there for the attendees, when they can get 90% of it by simply pointing a camera at the speaker and letting it roll (that said, I do think our videos look great.)

None of that stuff really matters - it’s not what a conference is about.

Conferences are about creating a shared space, listening to interesting ideas and presenting your own, either formally or informally. Meeting up with a group of like-minded people should be a no-brainer, not an expense you need to justify to yourself, your accountant or your boss.

Speaker expenses

Probably the single most significant argument against stripping conferences like we did is that “people want big-name speakers”. Fine, I’m not going to argue against that (or rather, I might, but that’s a whole difference debate). Speakers need flights, and hotel rooms, and feeding, and we speakers only eat truffles and fois gras, served floating in a pool of champagne, served in a hat made of gold…

This isn’t cheap, so ticket prices need to be high, right? Well, maybe, but even then, why not expose how much each speaker would cost to bring, and let the attendees decide - based on the speaker’s presentation pitch, along with their reputation - if they’re willing to foot the bill?

Woah. I think I just blew my own mind.

Anyway, I’m digressing. My point here is that there may be way of addressing stuff like paying for big-name speakers in a better way. We should try to find that way.

The Fear

There’s also the fear, as a conference organiser, that you’re going to pay all these deposits, book these flights, hire all this equipment, and then not going to sell enough tickets to cover it. You’re going to end up out of pocket. The fear. The mind-killer. The little death that brings total oblivion.

I’ve got no argument against that, suffice to say that the best way to reduce that kind of risk is by avoiding any unnecessary expenses in the first place. Simple.

Please, take my conference

Now maybe the rest of the world wants the t-shirt. Maybe they expect a conference to be a certain way, and so to pay a certain price for it. And that’s fine, honestly. But what I hoped we demonstrated is that lots of people don’t care about the trappings of a typical conference. Certainly to run the infrastructure of a RailsConf or a RailsBizConf takes a lot of money. But is it really important to do that?

What I hope we might’ve shown is that conferences can be put together in a different, and I would say better way, and that maybe other conferences might take that on board. Maybe some have… I’m not sure, but I hope nobody has avoided doing so because they didn’t want to step on ‘our’ toes.

Ruby Manor is owned by the people who contributed - everyone on the mailing list, everyone who came, and everyone who helped on the day, hell, even everyone who helped drink the bar tab we ended up with.

Worrying about adopting some Manor ideology is like the Pope worrying that his sermons might be stepping on Jesus’ toes. Not that I’m likening myself to Jesus. I’m not Jesus. I realise that now.

I’m almost finished

I wish I could’ve written a shorter blog post, but alas I didn’t have the time. Here is the gist:

If you like t-shirts, the quo is ready to embrace you.

If you don’t, fork Ruby Manor. I think the world might be better for it.